A week in the life of artist David Robinson

Monday, October 20, 2003

EXHIBITION I Vancouver sculptor prepares for a show that will hopefully make him money and get him some recognition

FOR THE VANCOUVER SUN October 20, 2003

Six weeks before the opening of his exhibition at Vancouver's Tracey Lawrence Gallery, sculptor David Robinson is feeling the pinch. His goal of completing seven new pieces within four months is almost accomplished.

Most of the figures have been sculpted but molds still need to be prepared, the bronze has to be cast (the foundry needs three to four weeks), the works "chased" and then individual figures installed - this is what 'resolves' the figures into art.

Competing for his attentions is Robinson's young family. In the weeks leading up to his opening, Robinson has had to call repeatedly on their patience and support.

Day One

Robinson's studio is comprised of two very separate areas. Walking into it feels like walking into a gallery. The walls are stark white, work is carefully displayed, track lighting casts shadows behind the sculptures. But there is no sign of black-attired art dealers here. Robinson stands six-foot- six and is dressed, as he says, "like a bricklayer."

Standard issue togs from Mark's Work Wearhouse are covered in dust and his heavy work boots reflect the physical labour necessary to make his art.

His fair hair is neatly cut and his blue eyes sparkle with welcome. This is a man you immediately like, whose boyish features reflect intelligence, warmth and humour. But this is also one of the finest figurative sculptors in Canada - he takes his profession seriously and at the moment is utterly focused on his upcoming exhibit.

Beyond the gallery portion of the studio you enter an area that resembles a small factory. There is dust everywhere and the space is filled with tools, tables, hot wax, wax molds, fragile works-in-progress and two studio assistants.

Robinson explains that the show will be comprised of seven new works cast in bronze.

''All the works are based on earlier works and maquettes," he says. "The larger ones are all scaled up from very quick hot glue pieces I did nine years ago."

Nine years. That's a long gestation period. You have to wonder about the practicality of this kind of art-making.

''Art is about risk taking," he says, philosophically. ''As an artist working toward a show you invest a lot of time and creativity and you invest a lot of your own money."

If all goes well and Robinson's pieces sell, or receive critical recognition, the risk will generate an income.

Robinson takes great delight in making his own tools and during this first day he shows me a clamp with a rotating screw onto which he adds minute gobbets of clay. Robinson takes up a piece of clay and adds it to the figure, slowly adding to the form. It is a time-consuming, laborious process.

"Building it up one sinew at a time it takes me forever to complete the damn thing," he says.  But Robinson is convinced this is the only way to capture a living form.

We lunch with fellow sculptor Bruce Van Slyke, a graduate from Emily Carr Who previously worked with Robinson in his studio. Van Slyke is working on sculptural toys and adapting sculptural techniques for costume design, but in order to support his family he is also working for the film industry.

Both artists have young children. They are neighbours and have a long friendship that is enviable in its familiarity and mutual respect. We eat sandwiches at a sidewalk cafe on industrial Venables Street and discuss Robinson's upcoming show. I ask him if he considers himself a Renaissance man.

He winks at Van Slyke and replies, "Well no, actually I see myself as more Late Gothic." The laughter rolls on through coffee and a shared piece of cheesecake.

Day Three

By Wednesday, Robinson has put finishing touches to three of the six larger works, cast them in wax, chased the wax castings, and delivered them to the foundry. This is done methodically and efficiently. But with time running out, some nail biting is inevitable.

If the works are not completed on schedule, it means less time to resolve the tough issues of how the figures will be installed in the gallery.

The relationship between an art dealer and an artist is like a marriage - the best ones are based on trust and respect. The artist produces the product, the dealer promotes the artist and sells the work.

At this point dealer Tracey Lawrence has only seen one completed work and the show is only two weeks away. "Half my artists work this way and it's fine if you trust them," she says.

"David has such high standards that I don't worry about the quality of the work or whether it will be created on time. I know I'll have a great show."

There is a gallery south of the border interested in doing business with Robinson. Originally, the new pieces were to have been cast in editions of 12, but Lawrence points out that there is no duty paid on original artworks imported into the Unites States, as long as editions are produced with fewer than 10 copies.

Robinson and Lawrence agree to lower the edition number from 12 to nine.

Day Five

By Friday, the last large figure is ready to be delivered for casting. It's late. Because he missed the foundry deadline, the wax has to be taken to the jeweller instead. We agree to meet at a little cafe at Cambie and Hastings streets, close to Victory Square, near the jeweller.

I arrive early and am witness to people shooting up at one end of the lane while filming goes on at the other end. This is definitely not the glamorous side of the art world

Robinson arrives carrying the wax figure and some bronze remnants from the foundry.  These he will give to the jeweller to ensure consistency in materials. He orders coffee, calzone and something sweet. He offers to buy me lunch - a chivalrous gesture typical of Robinson - and we sit in the window discussing the scientific aspect of his work.

Working with these materials and creating in three dimensions is a completely different process than placing paint on canvas. I ask about the role physics plays in his creative process.

"There is a balance of equilibrium in these hanging pieces," he explains. "I have to solve the physical problems at the same moment as the esthetic problems and have them converge in some sort of beautiful way. I sometimes alter what is visually impossible; bending the apparent rules of physics. That pushes the visual expectation of how a figure should balance."

Day Six

Saturday is a late night. By 11p.m. Robinson has finished sculpting the last two pairs of hands and has poured the rubber molds. I am wondering why he doesn't appear impatient or stressed. Another week has passed and the show is approaching.

Maybe this oblivion allows artists to finish their work. Like a surgeon, rushing doesn't payoff.

"There is a certain adrenaline rush working up to the show, the tension between creativity and time necessity when you work to a deadline," Robinson says.

"You are taking big risks. I like working absolutely in the moment with the materials in hand - even at the 11th hour I find that very stimulating."

Sarah Dobbs is a freelance writer who splits her time between Vancouver and Dublin.

David Robinson's show runs Oct. 25 to Nov. 29 at the Tracey Lawrence Gallery, 1529 West 6th Ave., in Vancouver.

Device and Desire